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Hathras stampede: Caste and politics of a tragedy

Surajpal Singh alias Narayan Sakar Hari alias Bhole Baba is a Jatav by caste. Most of his devotees are either Jatavs or come from other Dalit castes and EBCs. Fourteen of the women killed in the Hathras incident were from the Jatav community, writes Saiyed Zegham Murtaza

The tragic incident in Uttar Pradesh’s Hathras district on 2 June 2024 has claimed around 125 lives. According to eyewitness accounts, a stampede ensued soon after the conclusion of “Satsang” (religious sermon) by Surajpal, alias Narayan Sakar Vishwa Hari alias Bhole Baba. The police, administration and Baba’s disciples have made differing claims about what triggered the stampede. The claims and the counter-claims are being probed at many levels. The incident has also triggered a debate around Bhole Baba’s caste and political connections.

According to official figures, 121 people were killed and 31 were hurt in the tragic incident at Phulrai village in the Hathras district. After the incident, the police have booked the organizers of the event for culpable homicide not amounting to murder. Cases have been registered against them under Sections 103, 110, 126(2), 223 and 228 of the newly enforced Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita. They have also been charged with disobeying the orders of a public servant and tampering with evidence.

According to Shalabh Mathur, Inspector General of Police, Aligarh Range, Devprakash Madhukar has been named as the key accused. Six arrests have been made in the case. The police are still looking for Devprakash. The police say a non-bailable warrant will be issued against him and a reward of Rs 1 lakh will be announced for information leading to his arrest. However, Bhole Baba’s name does not figure in the list of accused.

Women lament the loss of their loved ones in the stampede at Hathras Satsang

Many reasons are being proffered for why, despite such a gruesome tragedy, the police administration has spared Surajpal Jatav alias Bhole Baba. It is claimed that Baba is politically well connected. He also has lakhs of devotees in Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Haryana and Rajasthan and the government does not want to arouse their ire by moving against him. Baba’s caste and his following among the Dalits are also said to be working in his favour. Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath and the top police brass, however, say that the case has been registered against individuals who had sought permission for holding the event from the administration. Since Baba was not among them, his name doesn’t figure in the FIR.

Who is Baba Surajpal Jatav

Bhole Baba alias Narayan Sakar was born Surajpal Singh into a Dalit family in the Patiyali area of Kasganj district. His village Bahadur Nagar is about 65 km away from Hathras. Bhole Baba had two brothers – the elder one died a few years ago while the younger does farming. Before metamorphosing into a Baba, Surajpal was a constable with the Uttar Pradesh Police. He worked for many years in the Local Intelligence Unit (LIU) of the police, serving in around 12 police stations around Agra. In the 1990s, a case of sexual exploitation was registered against him at the Shahganj police station in Agra. He was arrested and sent to jail. Meanwhile, he also lost his job.

Bhole Baba, however, tells a different tale to his disciples, according to which, he opted for voluntary retirement after serving in the police for 18 years. The Baba claims that after an encounter with God, he decided to devote his life to the Almighty. He says that he has an element of the supreme being in him and that doing good to humanity is his life’s objective. That is his story of Surajpal becoming Narayan Sakar Vishwa Hari. The story of Baba’s meeting with god is quite popular among his devotees. But even more popular are his miracles. Baba’s events are not only about sermons. They are also about curing diseases, and about purging the body of evil spirits and life of poverty.

Miraculous touch and water from Baba’s tap

Locals say that after his release from jail, he began relating stories of his divine encounter to anyone who would care to listen. Ravi Kumar, who lives in Patiyali, says, “The Baba also began claiming that the water from the hand pump installed outside his house had magical qualities. The number of his disciples began swelling and the tale of the miraculous water spread far and wide. People used to come from far off places to collect water from the hand pump.” They believed that the water would rid them of all their problems and cure all kinds of ailments.

Baba’s popularity began soaring in the neighbouring areas. But as is often the case, most of his devotees were the poor, Dalits and OBCs. And a majority of them were women from poor families with little or no education. Soon Baba’s fame crossed the borders of Patiyali and Kasganj and spread to other parts of the state. He started holding functions in cities like Firozabad, Etah, Etawah, Mainpuri, Jalaun, Farrukhabad, Agra, Hathras, Mathura, Pilibhit, Bareilly and Moradabad. On the first Tuesday of every month, a mega Satsang of Narayan Sakar Hari is held somewhere or the other.

Unlike most other Babas, Narayan Sakar Hari alias Bhole Baba is not seen in saffron attire. He always wears a white suit and is surrounded by a battery of personal bodyguards. He travels in long motorcades and has built ashrams in different places. His trademark hand pump can be seen at all his ashrams and function venues. His devotees are eager to extend their right arm for his miraculous touch and there is always a great rush to collect water from the divine hand pump. Getting to drink the water from the hand pump is considered a great blessing. The kind of devotion he commands is evident by the fact that 125 people lost their lives in the race to collect the dust from the path he had walked on.

Baba’s criminal antecedents

Sexual exploitation is not the only charge Surajpal has faced. Five criminal cases have been registered against him in police stations in Agra, Etawah, Kasganj and Farrukhabad districts of Uttar Pradesh and Dausa of Rajasthan. In the year 2000, he was arrested along with his wife Katori Devi. The Baba is childless and had adopted his niece, who died of cancer at 16. The Baba claimed that he would infuse life back into her and did not allow her cremation. The police had to intervene. He was placed behind bars and the last rites of the girl were performed.

Surajpal Singh Jatav alias Bhole Baba

The Baba is yet to be made an accused in the case pertaining to the July 2 incident. The police say that the investigation is still underway. In his report to the government, the district magistrate of Hathras has said that the crowd at the Satsang venue was much bigger than the numbers mentioned in the application seeking permission and that was what led to the mishap. However, Sandeep from Aligarh, who had attended the event, said that the road leading to the venue was jam-packed with people. The police used force to clear the way and that led to people falling over each other, triggering panic and stampede.

According to advocate A.P. Singh, who is representing the accused, the incident was the handiwork of anti-social elements. “This was done as part of a conspiracy,” he said.

Even as charges and counter-charges fly thick and fast, the government has constituted a Special Investigation Team (SIT) headed by the IG of the Agra Zone to investigate the incident. A Judicial Commission of Inquiry, headed by Brijesh Shrivastava, a former High Court judge, along with former IAS officer Hemant Rao and former IPS officer Bhavesh Kumar Singh, as members, has also been appointed. Meanwhile, the incident has acquired political overtones. It is being said that Baba’s name is missing from the FIR as he enjoys the patronage of local Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders. The BJP leaders, on the other hand, are flaunting a photograph of Baba with Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav, to claim that the latter is the real patron of the godman. Baba’s caste has also figured in the political slugfest.

Caste and politics

Surajpal Singh alias Narayan Sakar Hari alias Bhole Baba is a Jatav by caste. Most of his devotees are either Jatavs or come from other Dalit castes and EBCs. Fourteen of the women killed in the Hathras incident were from the Jatav community. Local residents claim that top politicians have been regular visitors to his congregations. Baba himself, though, has maintained a distance from TV, social media and other means of publicity. But there is little doubt that he enjoys considerable political clout. Alok Kumar, a resident of Aligarh, says, “During the BSP regime, Baba’s stars were at their zenith. His cavalcade used to have a number of vehicles fitted with red lights.”

According to Anil Shakya from Kasganj, “It is not that only Akhilesh Yadav has shared the dais with Baba. Leaders from the BJP, the BSP and other parties have also been attending events organized by him. A BJP MLA from Pilibhit has been one of the key organizers of his sermons. In fact, Baba has himself claimed on more than one occasion that his disciples include not only politicians but also many IAS and IPS officers.”

Ashish Upadhyay from Hathras says, “Political mudslinging is common after such incidents. But no one is talking about how to prevent a repeat of such tragedies in the future.”

Alok Jatav, who lives in Sahawar, alleges, “Baba is being dragged into the controversy as he happens to be a Jatav. Had he been a Savarna, the media would not have kicked up so much dust.”

Be that as it may, Hathras is not the first incident of its kind, and neither will it be the last. Until poverty, lack of education, backwardness and poor health facilities persist in our country, the business of miracle-men will continue to boom. Poor and miserable people, with little or no access to health and education facilities, will continue to flock to events like the Hathras Satsang in the hope that some miracle will put an end to their problems. And a coincidence or two, masquerading as a miracle, is enough to ignite the hopes of achieving the impossible in the hearts of millions. Given the present state of affairs, even if a Baba or two turns out to be a charlatan, even if a few land up in prisons or become the cause of tragedies, it is unlikely to adversely impact Babas and their businesses.

(Translated from the original Hindi by Amrish Herdenia)

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About The Author

Saiyed Zegham Murtaza

Syed Zegham Murtaza is an independent journalist based in Delhi. Born in Amroha, Uttar Pradesh, Murtaza has a masters in public administration and mass communication from Aligarh Muslim University. He is a regular contributor to various newspapers, magazines and news websites.

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